Fish on the Rise

As fish becomes more popular, sustainability comes to the fore.

By Paul King, Editorial Director

With foodservice customers eating more healthfully, fish has gained importance on menus in a growing number of non-commercial operations. But that has brought with it questions about sustainability. Operators are beginning to examine more carefully how and from where they purchase fish, not only to ensure they are getting good product but also to guarantee that they are not contributing to the demise of any species.

“We have established a great relationship with a local fishmonger,” says Brent Lewis, executive chef at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa, Fla., where fish is on the menu at least four times a week. “It is actually a husband and wife team, and they are also marine biologists so they understand about the need for sustainability when it comes to fish and seafood.”

This is a fact that Lewis and the foodservice department like to emphasize with customers. “We are sure to advertise this to our guests so they understand and can be educated about what they are eating,” Lewis says. “We tell them the fish comes from a local business that employs local people and makes sure that their fishermen and farmers are practicing sustainability, that they are not damaging certain species of fish and the oceans.”

The fish that appears on the menu varies with the season and can be either wild caught or farm raised. Among the locally wild-caught fish are red snapper, grouper, amberjack and pompano. Farmed fish can include keta, catfish and swai. The local fishmonger also specializes in white sturgeon, a fish harvested about 45 miles away.

Other fish on the St. Joseph’s menus include several varieties of salmon,
mahi-mahi, char and cod.

On the eastern shore of the state, sustainability is also important for the senior living facilities that are part of ACTS Life Retirement Communities.

“We have a couple of things we do for sustainability,” says Jonathan Addess, regional chef for ACTS in Boca Raton, Fla. “First, we try not to menu specific fishes all the time. Many of our communities will menu a catch of the day to take advantage of the market. Also, we will look at farmed fish when the quality is right. Most of our salmon, catfish, basa and tilapia—a very popular fish—is farmed. When possible, we purchase different species that are underfished. Recently, we’ve had excellent luck with unicorn fish and triggerfish.”

Addess adds that most of the Florida ACTS communities serve fish on a daily basis, with white fishes preferred by most residents. “However,” he notes, “any kind of salmon gets great reviews.”

Even in the interior of the United States, fish is gaining acceptance, particularly on college campuses. At Illinois State University in Normal, for example, fish can be found on the menu every day, according to Tim Gump, executive chef at the 20,000-student institution.

Varieties run the gamut: salmon, cod, catfish, tuna, tilapia, sole, mahi-mahi and rainbow trout are among the species served, based on seasonality and availability, with salmon being by far the most popular. Gump emphasizes that all fish served are solid muscle fillets; no chopped, formed or minced fish is ever on the menu.

“When it comes to sustainability, we use the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch website as our reference,” he says. “However, we have to balance our fiscal responsibility to our guests with our sustainable practices. We also work with our seafood suppliers for sustainability statements if there is a conflict between what the Seafood Watch website indicates compared to the manufacturers’ statements.”

Out west, at Utah State University in Logan, fish is served “very often,” according to executive chef Don Donaldson. Farm-raised fish is found more often than wild caught at this 23,000-student college, with salmon and tilapia the most common fish, followed by Cape Capensis cod and trout.

But Donaldson admits that he and the foodservice staff are still learning about seafood sustainability, and price still drives Utah State’s purchasing decisions.

“We feature salmon every Friday at the Junction,” says Donaldson, referring to the main residential dining facility. “We serve about 50 pounds each Friday. So far farmed salmon is the only viable price-per-pound option. I have been trying to get more information from [vendor] US Foods on how the salmon is farmed. They have recently partnered with a company in Washington state to improve their fish program. I am waiting to hear more about that.

“Sustainability is kind of tricky,” he adds. “Wild salmon is in trouble, and some farm practices are not good. I have mixed feelings on tilapia. As far as I can tell tilapia has some of the same problems as all other farmed fish. I am still wading through a lot of information, and we are getting a clearer idea of what’s best practice, for us.” 

Guiding Consumer Choices

As concerns about overfishing have risen in the past few years, several organizations have stepped forward to help monitor the fishing of many species of seafood. Groups such as the Marine Stewardship Council and the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch monitor fisheries to try to protect some species from being overfished and to try to steer consumers toward those types of seafood that are more sustainable choices.

Barton Seaver, a chef/conservationist who is a National Geographic Fellow, has worked with that organization to create the Seafood Decision Guide (SDG). Seaver says the program is “not an advocacy tool, but simply a guide to help people decide what type of fish to serve.”

The SDG rates 85 species of fish using four filters: omega-3 levels, sustainability ranking, mercury level and food chain level. “You decide what your goal will be or the customers you’re serving to,” he explains, “and the filters will lead you to the proper fish.”

For example, Pacific cod ranks high on the sustainability chart, but it also tends to be higher in mercury and low on the omega-3 scale. So while it is not an overfished species, it isn’t necessarily a good choice for, say, a hospital foodservice program to offer.

To see how this interactive guide works, visit natgeoseafood.com